The common roots of philanthropy and democracy
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
By Jamil Zainaldin
“Philanthropy” is a familiar word in the English language. It has roots in ancient Greek and means “love of mankind.”
Philanthropy is not quite the same thing as the more traditional “charity,” which is a commandment of all the world’s great religions to care for the poor and disadvantaged.
Philanthropy, as the ancient Greeks understood it, was “love of humanity.” It was not a duty to the less fortunate as charity is. It was for the benefit of the public as a whole — all the people. The earliest Olympic games were objects of philanthropy because they were for the enjoyment of everyone.
Pericles, the ruler of Athens, was thought to be the very symbol of philanthropy because he made Athens a democracy and built the Parthenon, which was the temple of the Greek goddess Athena, the city’s namesake (Athena was the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, justice, and the arts).
It was this civic and aspirational philanthropy of the Greeks and later the Romans that inspired the Italian Renaissance and its support of great poets, writers, thinkers, and artists.
The Founding Fathers of the United States were not ignorant of this civic tradition of philanthropy that stretches back to the beginning of Western civilization. Unlike we of today, they studied the past for its lessons, especially the Greek and Roman ancients who founded the world’s first known republics. The Founders read their works in the original Greek and Latin, and absorbed their idealism and most especially the importance they placed on virtue. Like the ancients, our 18th-century Founders saw personal virtue as the sine qua non of the true leader, the indispensable ingredient of self-government.
These small-time farmers, merchants, and lawyers of the American Revolution and later of the Constitutional Convention may not have had the money or the power to do great acts of philanthropy, but they did bestow upon us something more valuable than gold: constitutional self-government.
And they backed up that guarantee of self-government with a Bill of Rights that protected us from the rampages of the power hungry. They included the freedom to criticize leaders without penalty, to worship your own God or not. The Revolutionary and Constitutional era was and remains a great moment in the story of humanity. And what the Americans did in the 18th century with its scope and scale has no antecedent we know of in all recorded history.
I’m not saying that money is not important when we talk about civic philanthropy. Only that in the United States before the Civil War, there just wasn’t that much money. We were a capital-hungry economy. You were among the richest people in the United States in 1860 if you had $110,000 in assets — not gold or legal tender, but assets (about 7,000 people did, and more than half of those were slave-owners).
In a mere 20 years after the Civil War’s end, everything changed. In 1885 — you were rich if you had hundreds of millions of dollars. Not a mere drop of $110,000, but hundreds of millions.
Four of the 10 richest men in human history lived at this time and in practically the same place: Pennsylvania and New York. These new rich men were mega-industrialists who made their fortunes in big oil, big coal, big steel, transportation, and banking using layers of corporate ownership within a single industry, allowing them to control all trade, what contemporaries at the time labeled “monopolies” or “trusts.” This was the age of the “Robber Barons.”
And with their masses of new money they did something amazing: as they got older, they began giving it away. Their lawyers created entities called foundations, each with its own appointed directors who had complete freedom to manage donated capital and to designate the recipients of their largess. It is around the time of World War I that the philanthropic foundation as we know it today was born. Foundations’ legal status as nonprofit organizations, or “charities” (the word “nonprofit” was not in wide usage yet), meant they paid no taxes provided they granted the money away.
So, the Robber Barons became Robin Hoods: Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, and Mellon built libraries, eradicated pellagra and hookworm in the South, built whole new universities, schools, hospitals, and museums from the ground up. Their civic philanthropy would have been endorsed by the comparatively penniless Founding Fathers and applauded by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Today, there are more than 100,000 philanthropic foundations in the United States and more than 800 in Georgia alone.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll share with you three stories of civic philanthropy in Georgia: the Guggenheim Foundation’s transformative gift to the Georgia Institute of Technology, which was inspired by Charles Lindbergh; the collaboration between Booker T. Washington and the Sears and Roebuck Company’s Julius Rosenwald, which built schools for African American children across the South; and the national fight against polio, which took root in Warm Springs. These stories are hidden in plain sight — not widely known. But their legacies are anything but invisible.
If you enjoy the stories we share each week in “Jamil’s Georgia” and want to be part of Georgia’s rich philanthropic history, please consider supporting Georgia Humanities on November 17, Georgia Gives Day.
Kelly Caudle and Allison Hutton of Georgia Humanities provide editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.